The first games of the first round are in the book, and to the surprise of some, the Portland Trail Blazers were the story of the NBA playoffs’ opening weekend. The Indiana Pacers are in a tailspin, the Golden State Warriors stole home court from a Western Conference favorite L.A. Clippers (before getting blown out in Game 2) and the top overall seed, the San Antonio Spurs, needed a 15-0 run to avoid a major upset against the Dallas Mavericks.
And beyond all those made for TV narratives, it was a near-perfect game from LaMarcus Aldridge and a sparkling playoff debut for Damian Lillard in Sunday’s nightcap that had everybody talking.
Aldridge, Lillard and all their Blazer compatriots deserve the attention they’re getting for a Game 1 for the ages. Not only that, winning the first game of their first playoff series since 2011 fits nicely into the dominant narrative of this season: The 2013-14 Blazers have what it takes to be a competitor, and this team might just surprise some people.
But there’s another narrative that has been present this season, if at times a little below the surface. Those Blazer fans paying attention have probably gotten the distinct feeling that at a very basic level, this season has been about redemption. Whether that means redemption for the long-forgotten struggles of the 21-win Blazers of 2005-06 or the Raymond Felton/Gerald Wallace/Jamal Crawford rolling disaster of the lockout Blazers. As Steve Duin, the Oregonian columnist who tends to weigh in on professional basketball only when he wants to troll Blazer fans, the worm has turned.
Back in 2009, the last time the Blazers won 54 games, it was the Rockets who spoiled what was supposed to be the playoff coming out party for postseason first-timers Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge via a 30-point blowout.
In a somewhat poetic turn, the current Blazer probably most familiar with the redemption narrative of this season, Joel Freeland, played a somewhat pivotal, if limited, role in the Blazers’ biggest win of their best season in recent history.
In just less than one minute of court time, Freeland drew the (somewhat dubious) sixth foul on Dwight Howard, hit a free throw that was the final point scored by either team, and played a little help defense that kept James Harden from getting a clean look at a game-tying jumper.
Freeland was only on the floor in overtime because Aldridge had fouled out, but the fact that Freeland was part of the active roster at all stands near the top of this season’s redemption story.
As a rookie a season ago, Freeland couldn't crack the rotation. The best professional player Britain had to offer looked completely run over by the NBA. This season has been very different, even if Joel missed a couple of months after sustaining an unfortunate knee injury.
“It’s night and day between last season and now,” Freeland said after playing nearly 18 minutes against the Clippers to close the regular season, his first game action since February. “I’m still not the scorer that I was in Europe, but I don’t care about that anymore. I’m Joel Freeland, and I do what I do on the court to help my team win, and I’m proud of that.”
Freeland might not play again in this round of the postseason, or any other round should the team get there, but his 47-second debut in an overtime win on the road against a favored team stands as a pretty good start, given some of the other postseason debuts for guys on this season’s Blazer roster—guys like Aldridge and Batum, whose first playoff games would have also been Freeland’s if the Brit had come over the year he was drafted. Waiting so long to join the Blazers meant Freeland, who was selected 30th overall in the draft that yielded Roy and Aldridge, missed the first act of the Blazers’ redemption story, a first act that started out pretty well but was cut brutally short by three or four too many injuries.
But it also meant he missed the defining moment of the Blazers’ last best shot at getting out of the first round, the moment that the upstart, fourth-seeded Blazers walked off their home court after their biggest letdown in the biggest game of the season.
Aldridge claimed not to remember his first playoff game when asked about it following the Blazers’ playoff-clinching win at the beginning of April. Nicolas Batum on the other hand, remembers his postseason debut well.
And though Nic admits that there’s no real carry-over between then and now, with the Rockets 100 percent turned over since last meeting the Blazers in the postseason, ending the season of the team that ended Portland’s last great season would be the ultimate capper.